Richard Warner, D.D.S. Family Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa
(Story by Dr. Richard Warner)
Urban Renewal Totally Transformed Council Bluffs' Downtown
Certainly every downtown in America looks different today than it did fifty years ago. Few if any have changed anywhere nearly as much as Council Bluffs. The decision to raze 109 buildings in a 40 acre area at the city’s center totally transformed downtown in the early 1970s; even an entire street disappeared.
The ambitious plan was driven a growing feeling of desperation. The problem of being a smaller border town is a certain amount of local business is lost to the much larger neighbor. This was aggravated even more by the dominance of Omaha’s popular radio and television stations among Council Bluffs residents. Omaha advertisers easily reached potential Council Bluffs customers while local stores, which tended to be smaller, found commercial rates too steep.
The prevailing perception, whether justified or not, was a greater selection and lower prices were to be had across the river. Though the problem wasn’t new, it was getting worse. Attempts to make it easier to patronize downtown by building a parking garage on Fourth Street in 1959 and large parking lots a block north of Broadway in 1962 and 1964 didn’t solve the problem. A survey discovered a whopping 77% of southwest Iowa business was being lost to Omaha. Additionally, urban sprawl was growing across America, leaving downtowns dying. There were rumors of a potential suburban shopping center on the east end of Council Bluffs. With downtown capturing a meager 23% of its potential revenue as it was, odds of surviving any additional competition appeared quite bleak.
Problems may have been deeper than just competition; perhaps Council Bluffs’ downtown just wasn’t very desirable. A study by the Leo A. Day Company noted downtown offered no evening activities; the auditorium was in disrepair, the two remaining theaters past their prime, there were no nice restaurants, and the stores had few late hours. Chamber of Commerce President and First National Bank owner Dale Ball was new to town and his impression wasn’t positive. He described being very depressed by the community; "There was a perpetual defeatism. It was the Appalachia of Iowa. We had to do something so dramatic it would change the way people felt.”
The plan was indeed bold: completely transform the city center starting from scratch in the area bounded by Washington Avenue, North Second Street, Park Avenue, Pierce and Bluffs Streets, and First Avenue. The visual landmark would be the spire of St. Peter’s Church; the taller buildings and billboards obscuring the view would be removed and replaced with a single story building. A downtown mall would be built to stimulate evening shopping; this evening traffic would stimulate development of dining and entertainment venues; a downtown hotel and convention center would follow. A south side viaduct would be built to allow ready access from Interstates 29 and 80, making downtown an easy retail destination for all of southwest Iowa.
The big plan carried a big price tag, and not all agreed the project was worthy of the expense. In 1967 voters rejected a bond issue to fund buying out the many existing property owners. Despite the failure the project moved forward anyway in 1969 using almost ten million dollars obtained from federal loans and grants. In January, 1973 voters were asked to approved a bond issue that would provide 4.5 million dollars to build a parking garage for the new mall. The issue was controversial and became ever more so as the date of the vote approached. In the final weeks J.L. Brandeis announced it would establish a store in the new mall, as did Sears, Roebuck and Company and a half dozen other Omaha stores— that is, if the bond issue for the parking garage passed. Three days before the vote Omaha city planning director Alden Aust mused about a futuristic elevated transit system that could link the new parking garage with Westroads in Omaha. The bond issue was approved by 70.3 percent. The next day’s headline declared, “The Sleeping Giant Has Awakened.”
The promised South Side Viaduct was built and opened in 1975; Fourth Street was reconfigured to showcase St. Peter’s spire. Sears Automotive opened on the south side of Broadway in 1975; Sears became the first store to open in Midlands Mall in February, 1976, the first sale in that first store being to the wife of the mayor. The mall itself seemed to have a personality; the architect firm described the design as “emphasizing life within the shell, not the shell itself.”
Times and economic dynamics change, sometimes rather quickly. Midlands Mall was put up for sale in 1987, sold to Dhaliwal Enterprises in 1988, becoming Centre Point Mall. It closed in 1992. A bond issue to convert the structure to a downtown campus for Iowa Western Community College failed. Success returned when the building was reopened as the Omni Business Park, today the home of a variety of tenants.
Not all displaced stores chose to relocate. After 73 years at 4th and Broadway the Joe Smith Company opted not to open a store in the new mall.
Stores of the 300 block of West Broadway as they are being prepared for demolition in 1973.
Council Bluffs students contributed money to buy a clock for Midlands Mall as their Bicentennial Project. Sunnydale raised the most money per child for the $1500 purchase which was installed shortly after the mall opened in 1976.
The Brandeis store was adjacent to the food court; Brandeis had the distinction of giving Council Bluffs its first escalator.